We were excited to broadcast the 2020 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry event last night and celebrate Terrance Hayes (for his 2018 poetry collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin) and Natasha Trethewey (for lifetime achievement). For those of you who missed the broadcast, you can still check it out on the Library’s Facebook page, YouTube site, and on the Library’s website.
The Library’s biennial Bobbitt Prize is awarded to an American poet for the most distinguished book of poetry published during the preceding two years, or for lifetime achievement in poetry—or, as in this year, both! In fact, this is the third time our three-person jury (appointed by the Librarian of Congress, the Poet Laureate, and the Bobbitt family) have selected winners in both categories—it happened in 2016 with Claudia Rankine and Nathaniel Mackey, and in 2008 with Bob Hicok and former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Wright. Three other laureates have also won the prize: W.S. Merwin (2006), Mark Strand (1992), and Louise Glück (1996)—who just won the Nobel!
Last night’s reading showed why our 2020 winners are a terrific addition to that esteemed list. First up was our former U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey. The Bobbitt Prize jury said that Natasha’s Monument: Poems New and Selected “illuminates her far-reaching range while also serving as a testament to the integrity of her poetic vision”—and you can see that at work in the four poems she reads. I also appreciated how the poems highlighted Natasha’s well-known examination of the past—her family story as well as our country’s history—to reckon with the present. Terrance followed by focusing on his prize-winning book, and his reading felt like a powerful complement to Natasha’s. As he read poem after poem titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” I was struck by their search for meaning in our moment—when language is as much a dividing as connecting force.
The event ended with a short conversation between our two winners and the Librarian of Congress, and I hope you watch it to see how the three touch upon poetry’s power to move us—whether we write poems or read them, teach them or promote them. I also want to point to the wealth of resources we have for both winners on loc.gov! Natasha has a new resource guide, which offers a way to connect to her signature laureate project and see her many past programs at the Library (I would especially recommend this program with Grammy Award-winner Rosanne Cash, celebrating the connection between poetry and songwriting). On Terrance’s Library of Congress biography you can see the past Library programs he has participated in as well. His “Life of a Poet” program with Washington Post book critic Ron Charles offers a great way to hear Terrance talk more about his work.